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Reprod Health Matters. 2009 Nov;17(34):38-46. doi: 10.1016/S0968-8080(09)34469-9.

Criminalization, legalization or decriminalization of sex work: what female sex workers say in San Francisco, USA.

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Research Triangle Institute International, San Francisco CA, USA.


Sex work is a criminal offence in San Francisco, USA, and sex work advocates have so far unsuccessfully campaigned for decriminalizing it. Some groups argue that the decriminalization movement does not represent the voices of marginalized sex workers. Using qualitative and quantitative data from the Sex Worker Environmental Assessment Team Study, we investigated the perspectives and experiences of a range of female sex workers regarding the legal status of sex work and the impact of criminal law on their work experiences. Forty women were enrolled in the qualitative phase in 2004 and 247 women in the quantitative phase in 2006-07. Overall, the women in this study seemed to prefer a hybrid of legalization and decriminalization. The majority voiced a preference for removing statutes that criminalize sex work in order to facilitate a social and political environment where they had legal rights and could seek help when they were victims of violence. Advocacy groups need to explore the compromises sex workers are willing to make to ensure safe working conditions and the same legal protections afforded to other workers, and with those who are most marginalized to better understand their immediate needs and how these can be met through decriminalization.

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